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What3words is a geocode system for the communication of locations with a resolution of three metres. What3words encodes geographic coordinates into three dictionary words; the encoding is permanently fixed. For example, the omphalos of Delphi, believed by the ancient Greeks to be the centre of the world, is located at "spooky.solemn.huggers". What3words differs from most other location encoding systems in that it displays three words rather than long strings of numbers or letters.
What3words has a website, apps for iOS and Android, and an API that enables bidirectional conversion between what3words address and latitude/longitude coordinates. As the system relies on a fixed algorithm rather than a large database of every location on earth, it works on devices with limited storage and no Internet connection.
According to the company its revenue comes from charging businesses for high-volume use of the API that converts between 3 words and coordinates; services for other users are free of charge.
Founded by Chris Sheldrick, Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam, and Michael Dent, what3words was launched in July 2013. Sheldrick and Ganesalingam originally conceived the idea after Sheldrick struggled to get equipment and bands to event locations on time due to inadequate address information while working as a concert organiser. The company was incorporated in March 2013 and a patent application for the core technology filed in April 2013.
In November 2013, what3words raised US$500,000 of seed funding; in March 2014 it raised a second seed round of US$1 million; in November 2015, it completed a US$3.5 million Series A funding round; and in June 2016, it completed a US$8.5 million Series B round.
In January 2018, Mercedes-Benz bought approximately ten per cent of the company and announced what3words support in future versions of the Mercedes-Benz User Experience infotainment and navigation system. The A-Class, launched in May 2018, became the first vehicle in the world with what3words on board.
What3words uses a grid of the world made up of 57 x1012 squares of 3 metres by 3 metres. Each square has been given an address composed of three words. The addresses are available in 36 languages according to the what3words online map (as of April 2019), and the addresses are not translations of the same words.
Each what3words language uses a wordlist of 25,000 words (40,000 in English, as it covers the sea as well as land). The lists go through multiple automated and human processes before being sorted by an algorithm that takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency, and ease of spelling and pronunciation. Homophones and variant spellings are treated to minimize any potential for confusion, and offensive words are removed.
The what3words algorithm actively distributes similar-sounding three-word combinations around the world to enable both human and automated error-checking. The result is that if a three-word combination is entered slightly incorrectly and the result is still a valid what3words reference, the location will usually be so far away from the user's intended area that the error will be immediately obvious to both a user and an intelligent error-checking system.
The what3words system uses a proprietary algorithm in combination with a limited database; the core technology is contained within a file of about 10 MB. The database is used to assign more memorable words to locations in urban areas. What3words originally sold "OneWord" addresses, which were stored in a database for a yearly fee, but this feature has been cancelled.
The main claimed advantages of what3words are memorability, error-detection, unambiguous nature of words for most everyday and non-technical uses, and voice input.
Emergency services use
As of October 2019, 75 English and Welsh emergency services have signed up to the system. In February 2020 four walkers stranded on Ben Nevis in Scotland used the app to provide rescuers with details of their location.
Supporters of open standards criticise the what3words system for being controlled by a private business and the software for being patented and not freely usable. That similar addresses are purposely far away from each other is also seen by some as a disadvantage.
The company has pursued an assertive policy of issuing copyright claims against individuals and organisations that have hosted or published details of the what3words algorithm or reverse-engineered code that replicates the service's functionality, such as WhatFreeWords. This has extended to removing comments on social media which refer to unauthorised versions.
- Grand Prix for Innovation at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity
- The Tech Awards Sobrato Organization Economic Development Award
- Geographic coordinate system
- Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system
- Maidenhead Locator System
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